The maths behind the most unshakeable technology of the 20th century
In 1867, a newspaper editor in Milwaukee contemplated a new kind of technology. He had previously patented a device which could be used to number the pages of books but, inspired by the suggestions of fellow inventors, he decided to develop it further. The idea itself wasn’t exactly new – it had been echoing around the scientific community for over 100 years. The challenge was to realise it in a way that was commercially viable, and Christopher Latham Sholes was ready.
His first design, in 1868, resembled something like a piano. Two rows of keys were arranged alphabetically in front of a large wooden box. It was not a success. Then, after almost 10 years of trial and error came something much more familiar. It had the foot-pedal of a sewing machine and most of the remaining mechanism was hidden by a bulky casing, but at the front were four rows of numbers, letters and punctuation… and a spacebar.
Surprisingly little is certain about why he chose to lay it out as he did, probably because to Sholes the layout was no more than a side-effect of the machine he was trying to create. But as the most influential component of the typewriter, the qwerty keyboard has attracted debates about its origin, its design and whether it is even fit for purpose. Without historical references, most arguments have centred on statistical evidence, jostling for the best compromise between the statistical properties of our language and the way that we type. More recently, questions have been posed about how generic ‘the way that we type’ actually is. Can it be generalised to design the perfect keyboard, or could it be unique enough to personally identify each and every one of us?
The first typewriter was designed for hunt-and-peck operation as opposed to touch typing. In other words, the user was expected to search for each letter sequentially, rather than tapping out sentences using muscle-memory. Each of the 44 keys was connected to a long metal typebar which ended with an embossed character corresponding to the one on the key. The typebars themselves were liable to jam, leading to the commonly disputed myth that the qwerty arrangement was an effort to separate frequently used keys.
Throughout the 20th century new inventors claimed to have created better, more efficient keyboards, usually presenting a long list of reasons why their new design was superior. The most long-lasting of these was the Dvorak Simplified Keyboard, but other challengers arrived in a steady stream from 1909, four years after qwerty was established as the international standard.
Is it possible that there was a method behind the original arrangement of the keys? It really depends who you ask. The typebars themselves fell into a circular type-basket in a slightly different order to the one visible on the keyboard. Defining adjacency as two typebars which are immediately next to each other, the problem of separating them so that no two will jam is similar to sitting 44 guests around a circular dinner table randomly and hoping that no one is seated next to someone they actively dislike.
For any number, n, of guests, the number of possible arrangements is (n-1)!. That is, there are n places to seat the first guest, multiplied by (n-1) places left to seat the second guest, multiplied by (n-2) for the third guest and so on. Because the guests are seated round a circular table with n places, there are n ways of rotating each seating plan to give another arrangement that has already been counted. So, there are (n x (n-1) x (n-2) x…x 1)/n = (n-1) x (n-2) x…x 1 arrangements, which is written (n-1)!.
By pairing up two feuding guests and considering them as one, you can find the total number of arrangements where they are sat next to each other by considering a dinner party with one less person. From our calculation above we know the total number of possible arrangements is (n-2)!, but since the feuding pair could be seated together as XY or YX we have to multiply the total number of arrangements by two. From this, the final probability of the two feuding guests being sat together is 2(n-2)!/(n-1)! = 2/(n-1), and so the probability of them not being sat together is 1-(2/(n-1)) = (n-3)/(n-1).
But what if one or more of the guests is so unlikable that they have multiple enemies at the table? Say ‘h’ who has been known before now to clash with both ‘e’ and ‘t’. Assuming the events are independent (one doesn’t influence the other) we just multiply the probabilities together to get the chance of ‘h’ being next to neither of them as [(n-3)/(n-1)]2. And the probability that on the same table ‘e’ is also not next to her ex ‘r’ is [(n-3)/(n-1)]2 x [(n-3)/(n-1)] = [(n-3)/(n-1)]3. So, for any number of pairs of feuding guests, m, the probability of polite conversation between all is [(n-3)/(n-1)]m.
Now, returning to the problem of the typebars, a frequency analysis of the English language suggests there are roughly 12 pairings which occur often enough to be problematic. For n=44 symbols, the dinner party formula gives a probability of [(44-3)/(44-1)]12 = [41/43]12 = 0.56. That is a better than 50% chance that the most frequently occurring letter pairs could have been separated by random allocation. An alternative theory suggests that Sholes may have looked for the most infrequently occurring pairs of letters, numbers and punctuation and arranged these to be adjacent on the typebasket. The statistical evidence for this is much more compelling, but rivals of qwerty had other issues with its design.
August Dvorak and his successors treated keyboard design as an optimisation problem. With the advantage of hindsight now that the typewriter had been established, they were able to focus on factors which they believed would benefit the learning and efficiency of touch typing. Qwerty was regularly criticised as defective and awkward for reasons that competing keyboards were claimed to overcome.
The objectives used by Dvorak, qwerty’s biggest antagonist and inventor of the eponymous Dvorak Standard Keyboard (DSK), were that:
- the right hand should be given more work than the left hand, at roughly 56%;
- the amount of typing assigned to each finger should be proportional to its skill and strength;
- 70% of typing should be carried out on the home row (the natural position of fingers on a keyboard);
- letters often found together should be assigned positions such that alternate hands are required to strike them, and
- finger motions from row to row should be reduced as much as possible.
To achieve these aims, Dvorak used frequency analysis data for one-, two-, three-, four- and five- letter sequences, and claimed that 35% of all English words could be typed exclusively from the home row. He also conducted multiple experiments on the ease of use of his new design over qwerty, although the specifics were sparsely published.
Of course, however good Dvorak’s new design may have been, there was a problem. Qwerty being pre-established meant that finding subjects who were unfamiliar with both keyboards was difficult. Participants who tested the DSK had to ‘unlearn’ touch typing, in order to relearn it for a different layout, while those using qwerty had the advantage of years of practice. The main metric used to determine the ‘better’ design was typing speed but clearly this was not only a test of the keyboard, it was also a measure of the skill of the typist.
Alone, average typing speed would not be enough to distinguish between individuals – any more than 40 words per minute (wpm) is considered above average and since a lot more than 40 people are average or below average typists, some of them must have the same wpm – but other information is available. Modern computer keyboards send feedback from each letter you type, leading to a wealth of data on the time between each consecutive key press. This can be broken down into the time between any particular letter pairing, building a profile on an individuals specific typing patterns, and combined with typing speed it is surprisingly effective at identifying typists.
In a battle of the keyboards, despite its suboptimal design and uncertain past, qwerty has remained undefeated. Today it is so ubiquitous that for most people to see a different layout would be jarring, yet our interactions with it are still identifiably unique. Nearly 150 years after its conception, the keyboard is embedded in our culture – it’s an old kind of technology, just not the one Scholes thought he was inventing.